Coming Soon: Accountability for Our Opioid Epidemic

Pill manufacturing machine.

Finally, there are definite signs that major pharmaceutical companies are being assigned proper accountability for contributing to America’s terrible opioid abuse epidemic.

It’s about time. Up to now, when a parent lost a beloved child (of any age), the only accountability rested with that person. That responsibility should have always been shared with the pharmaceutical companies who misled prescribers and patients on the safety of their products.

It’s not a brand new discovery that major pharmaceutical companies ought to be sharing the blame for many tens of thousands of overdose deaths. As far back as 2007, Purdue Pharma admitted their fraudulent marketing practices and paid a $634 million fine. This fine constituted a very small percentage of their profits from their patented formula, OxyContin.

OxyContin is a widely abused drug that has killed thousands of people who may have simply taken the drug as directed but then became addicted and finally, suffered an accidental overdose.

Because of the overprescribing of this drug, other painkillers and similarly addictive drugs like Xanax and Valium, by 2015, nearly 19 million people were misusing prescription drugs and two million were addicted to these pills.

Woman worries about her loved one.

While parents who lost their beloved children would have loved to see Purdue Pharma executives in jail, this didn’t happen in 2007. And the fines so far have been less than significant. But there are hopeful signs that this may change. If the financial pain for pharmaceutical companies is great enough, they may be forced to change their corporate philosophies. If some executives spend time in jail, many people who lost loved ones to prescription drugs may finally feel that justice has prevailed to some degree.

Signs of Change

Here’s the signs we’ve seen recently that offer hope that these companies will finally be forced to accept greater responsibility for their actions.

July 2016: The Los Angeles Times exposed the culpability of Purdue Pharma in the distribution of millions of pills that were diverted into the illicit market. In their detailed, extensive coverage of this hellish situation, the Times pulled no punches in revealing the wrongdoing of the pharmaceutical giant.

December 2016: Six former employees (including CEO and two vice-presidents) of Insys Therapeutics (maker of fentanyl) were arrested and charged with bribing doctors and conspiring to increase prescriptions for Subsys, a fentanyl product.

December 2016: The Drug Enforcement Administration announced a $10 million civil penalty against New York State pharmaceutical distributor Kinray. The company accepted responsibility for failing to inform the DEA of suspicious orders for controlled substances, particularly opioid medications like hydrocodone and oxycodone, that were being massively overprescribed by unscrupulous doctors.

January 2017: Two drug wholesalers agreed to pay West Virginia a total of $36 million for failing to curtail overprescribing. Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen admitted that they had not alerted state or federal authorities when pharmacies ordered unusually high quantities of drugs that were likely to be abused. To illustrate just how severe the wrongdoing of these companies was, in just six years, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million pills of just two kinds of painkillers to this state with a population of 1.8 million.

January 2017: Drug wholesaler McKesson lost an attempt to move a similar case to federal court when the lawsuit was ordered to be executed in West Virginia where it had originated. The pharmaceutical company wanted the case heard in a federal court which might have been more lenient with the corporation than the State of West Virginia where thousands of people have been lost to overdose.

March 2017: Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri launched an investigation into the ways leading painkiller manufacturers willingly contributed to our drug epidemic. She targeted Purdue, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, Insys, Mylan and Depomed.

Ohio’s Attorney General announces lawsuit against pharma corporations.
Ohio’s Attorney General announces the lawsuit.

May 2017: Ohio jumped on the lawsuit bandwagon by filing an action against Purdue, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Allergan Plc. 

In the last year or so, similar lawsuits have been filed in Mississippi, four counties in New York, Santa Clara and Orange Counties in California, the Cherokee Nation, the City of Everett, Washington, St. Clair County in Illinois and the City of Chicago.

States, Cities, Counties and Families Deserve Justice

West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio and Rhode Island are at the top of the list of states suffering brutal losses to addictions that often started with patients taking painkillers as directed by their doctors. In some cases, too-liberal prescribing practices meant that doctors sent large bottles of pills into patients’ homes—far more than they needed for short-term pain. So the pills sat in medicine cabinets where they could be misused by anyone who was struggling with emotional or physical pain. Patients were not counseled about the abuse potential or addictiveness of these pills. And so misuse and subsequent addiction could occur.

When some people ran out of money or their doctors refused to renew prescriptions, they were forced to the streets to obtain heroin which is very similar in effect and action. Either due to painkiller abuse or because of the varying potency of heroin, overdoses surged as more people fell into this trap.

It may take years for these cases to finally be resolved. But with the flames turned up high under these actions, we may start to finally see some well-deserved justice meted out to these corporations who should not profit from the heartbreak of families.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.